Blue Dog: Town halls convinced me to oppose public option

Did the August town hall protests have an effect on Congress?  Enough so that at least one Blue Dog Democrat admitted it convinced him to oppose the public option in the health-care overhaul bill.  Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR) announced his opposition this morning, crediting his constituents for his moment of clarification:

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog congressman who battled with Democratic Party leaders for much of July before reaching an agreement on health-care reform legislation, said Tuesday that he could no longer back the government-insurance option included in the bill he voted for before the congressional recess.

“I have been skeptical about the public health insurance option from the beginning and used August to get feedback from you, my constituents,” he wrote in a statement his office released publicly. “An overwhelming number of you oppose a government-run health insurance option, and it is your feedback that has led me to oppose the public option as well.”

While no other members of the Blue Dog Coalition signed the statement, Ross’ comments could be the first sign of hardening opposition to the public option among the Blue Dogs, a group of 52 conservative House Democrats, many of whom represent districts President Obama lost last year. Before the recess, the group had been divided on the public option, but Ross has been one of its leaders on health care issues, forcing House Democratic leaders to make a number of changes to the bill before it passed in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Hill reports that returning members of both chambers have become very aware of the bill’s unpopularity, and will almost certainly adjust their thinking — even perhaps Democratic leadership:

Political momentum appeared to swing sharply against the public health insurance option prized by liberals Tuesday, on the eve of President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate on Tuesday signaled they are increasingly willing to pass healthcare reform without a public insurance option, even while Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) again insisted it must be included in a House healthcare bill. …

But a Democratic leadership aide who sat in on an administration briefing Tuesday said that while Obama will offer support Wednesday for a public option, the president will not insist on it.

“He’s going to say it’s the best tool for reducing costs,” the aide said. “I think he’s going to be a bit noncommittal.”

In the Senate, Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said that the time was not right to add a new government agency while deficits explode and the economy still struggles to bottom out.  Susan Collins (R-ME) also voiced skepticism about creating a public option under current conditions.  Any hope of bipartisan compromise would have to rest on Collins, Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Lieberman.  If none of those are on board, Democrats will not likely move a bill out of the Senate at all.

Progressives will watch Obama’s speech carefully to look for smoke signals:

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who has predicted 100 Democrats would oppose a healthcare bill with no public option, said the speech is likely to decide whether it is included in a bill.

“We can cobble the votes together for a public option if the president says that’s what he wants,” Weiner said. “If he gives it up, there’s no other way to interpret that than as a retreat.”

That sounds like a retreat from Weiner himself, who publicly demanded “Medicare for all” on national television during the break.  It also highlights the leadership failure of the White House.  We’re now five months into the debate on health-care reform, and Weiner is looking for semaphores in a joint-session speech?

He’ll probably have to have an eagle eye to catch any sort of signal.  Obama has spent the last four weeks waffling on what he had previously demanded as key components of his overhaul.  The President has had plenty of time to get firm; in fact, Robert Gibbs said last week that Obama would put out a plan of his own, which now has been walked back to a list of fundamental principles that will appear in tonight’s speech.  It’s not exactly a leadership tour de force, and it’s unlikely to get any better tonight.